Examination of Witness (Questions 43-63)|
Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP
10 November 2010
Hilary Benn: Good afternoon.
Q43 Chair: Good afternoon. Thank
you for coming. Unlike a court of law, you have heard what the
other witness has said, so feel free to comment on anything that
you have heard in the last half hour. I shall start in the same
way: do you wish to make an opening statement?
Hilary Benn: Not really, only
to say that I, too, greatly welcome the fact that the Procedure
Committee is looking at this question for reasons that were very
well aired in the debate that took place in the summer. It seems
to me that the principles we should be trying to work to are that
we want the Government to make announcements and to tell the House;
we want the House to know first and/or at exactly the same time
as everybody else, which picks up the point that Mr Gale made
a moment ago; we want Members to have the opportunity to question
Ministers as appropriate; and there should be reasonable notice
of what is going on, for Opposition spokespeople and of course
for Members of the House. We are wrestling with all the pressures
that were well set out in the debate that I referred to a moment
ago. That is all I wanted to say by way of openers.
Q44 Chair: Thank you. Could you
let us know your views on the innovation suggested by the Leader
of the House, that there should be a new categorya grade
2 oral statementwhich is time-limited.
Hilary Benn: In one sense, the
Speaker currently judges the amount of time. If you look at the
figures for the length of time that oral statements last, depending
on the importance of the subject and the number of Members who
want to speak, the Speaker is applying that judgment at the moment.
One of the genuine difficulties that we are
all facing and wrestling with, is the words in the ministerial
code"most important", however you define that.
I must say in passing, that it seems a bit odd that the Executive
are setting out to Ministers the obligations that Ministers ought
to have to the House; I think the House ought to have an expectation
in addition to that. What is "most important" is in
the eye of the beholder.
We are also wrestling with the problem of time.
I favour looking at the possibility of using Westminster Hall
for some oral statements. Considering the total time that is available,
there are great pressures on the main Chamber, and we created
Westminster Hall to provide more time for backbenchers, in particular,
to raise questions. It has been a great success, but there are
slots that we could use.
Another practical thing we could do is that
the moment a written or oral statement is made or laid, it should
be e-mailed immediately to every single Member, because we are
all on e-mail. If you want a belt and braces approach, we all
get texts all the time from our Whips on a group text arrangement,
so you could do that as well. Members would know when something
had been laid and could see the text. You could also apply that
to the notice arrangements. I agree with Sir George that we ought
to make use of the modern technology that is available to answer
some of the questions that you were raising, such as how Members
will know what has been laid.
Q45 Chair: Are you saying that
if there was to be a statementlet's say it was a regional
issue, something affecting Devon or perhaps Yorkshireyou
would be quite happy in those circumstances for a ministerial
statement to be made in Westminster Hall?
Hilary Benn: That is one of the
criteria that could be used, probably by the Speaker, in determining
where the appropriate place was, because it would provide more
opportunity for oral statements and it would be a way of dealing
with the problem of pressure on time in the main Chamber. In the
end, it is a matter of judgment. However, as I reflected after
receiving your kind invitation to give evidence, why not as part
of the solution use the mechanism that we have already created
for some of this?
Another suggestion that I would make is that
we have created the Backbench Business Committee to protect the
rights of backbenchers. In relation to some of the many written
statements that go through, on which Ministers are never questionednot
that they need to be questioned on all of themthe Backbench
Committee might decide that there are some on which they would
like to invite Ministers to answer questions. It would be another
mechanism for ensuring that the right of Members to question Ministers
could happen. Again, you could do that in Westminster Hall if
you felt that it was useful.
Q46 Chair: So you would favour
a written question slot in Westminster Hall, where Members could
come along and question Ministers on certain written statements?
Hilary Benn: Yes, but you would
have to give Ministers notice. At the moment, the Backbench Committee
is operating what Sir George christened its salon, where Members
make bids for backbench business debates on a Thursday. You could
have a similar mechanism. I was looking back over the written
statements that have been put down in the last week, for example.
Backbenchers might say, "Well, we really think that we should
have an opportunity to debate beak-trimming laying hens,"or
the Leasehold Advisory Service annual report, the pension age
or the convention on biological diversity. The Backbench Committee
would take soundings and form a view, and say, "Right, we
are going to invite the Minister to answer questions on his or
her written statement at this time."
These are ideas trying to respond to the central
problem that your Committee is grappling withhow to have
more opportunity for Members to hold the Executive to account
and how we deal with the pressure on time.
Q47 Chair: The reason I press
you on this is that my party, when we were in opposition, was
against the Government of the day in using Westminster Hall for
further Government-related business. I wish to make it quite clear
that you see no objection to there being a dedicated slot for
Ministers to be cross-examined in Westminster Hall in the way
you have just outlined.
Hilary Benn: That is an option
that ought to be considered, because it is one way to deal with
the pressure on time. Secondly, in relation to Westminster Hall,
obviously there are debates that are initiated by the Government
as well as by select committees, and obviously by backbenchers.
We need to think creatively about how we provide more opportunities,
in exactly the same way as we thought creatively when establishing
Westminster Hall to provide more opportunities for backbenchers
to raise matters that they thought were important.
Chair: Thank you.
Q48 Mr Gale: I shall come in a
moment to written statements, and how Ministers should be questioned
on them. Just before we leave Westminster Hall, however, there
is clearly a danger that some issues could seem to have been marginalised.
You heard the conversation that we had earlier with the Leader
of the House about less important statements being given less
time, but someone has to judge. This is awfully difficult for
anybody, which is why I personally cannot help feeling that the
Speaker, with his advisers, is probably the right person to do
this. Something may superficially appear to be quite mundane,
but it may affect a group of Members and their constituents. You
have indicated that it could be the west country or Wales or whatever.
The moment you go down that parochialising route, there's a danger
that you shunt something into a sidingin this case the
sidings of Westminster Hall. I can see a situation in whichnotwithstanding
the creative thinking that you are applying to thisthere
could be a first-class statement and a second-class statement.
I just wonder how you would overcome that.
Hilary Benn: The first thing I
would say is that the House has to decide whether it thinks that
Westminster Hall is a second-class place. As far as I am concerned,
an adjournment debate in Westminster Hall has exactly the same
value and importance as an adjournment debate in the Chamber.
Having established that, we should not cede to anyone else the
idea that it is second class. Part of the argument for making
the suggestion is that it seems to me that it would augment the
status. I am acutely conscious, Mr Gale, of the point that you
make about not wanting to end up with first and second-class statements,
but as I indicated earlier, the Speaker currently makes a judgment
in deciding how long a statement will run, which is partly a function
of the number of people still standing and partly a function of
the importance of it. We give a lot of other responsibilities
to the Speaker, which he exercises with great diligence, and this
could be another one. In the end, a lot of this is a matter of
judgment. It is a matter of judgment for Ministers, as to whether
they are going to make a written statement or an oral statement.
It is a matter of judgment for the Speaker as to whether or not
he is going to grant an urgent question. As one of the central
problems is the question of time, this provides a wayunless
we extend the hours, which is the alternativeof enabling
us to cut through this.
Q49 Mr Gale: Let's come on to
the written statements and, to some extent, the oral statements
and blur the lines a little. There is a suggestion that Members
should have the opportunity in the Chamber to question Ministers
on written statements. There is a perfect logic in that. You cannot
have everything done as an oral statement. John Hemming has had
to leave for another Committee, but you heard the Leader of the
House's answer to him when he suggested that oral statements might
be released earlier. I suggested that they should be released
for the media and to the House at exactly the same time, but maybe
an hour or an hour and a half in front of a statement. Is there
any merit in a Minister coming to the despatch box and reading
a statement that every literate Member of Parliament is quite
capable of reading for themselves? Might it not be better, whether
that statement is written or oral, to release it in written form
so that Members could then come into the Chamber briefed? That
would save time and save the Minister the sweat of having to stand
up and read it. Members could then get stuck in to the nitty-gritty,
which is, "What's this all about?" and "How are
you going to respond to this, please, Minister?"
Hilary Benn: I see the argument,
but let's apply that for a moment to the statement on the comprehensive
spending review that took place on 20 October. As I recall, it
lasted just under an hour. In that case, I don't think it would
be sensible to say, "Here it is two hours beforehand. Now,
questions." That is one end of the spectrum. The other end,
if you think of written statements, is, "Yes, it's pretty
short and we can read it pretty quickly and then we can get stuck
in." It comes back to this question of judgment. It is certainly
helpful to Members if we get as much advance notice as possible
both of the fact that a statement is going to be madewhether
it is oral or writtenand of the content so that we can
think about it and raise it. What really irritates Members, as
the Committee has already indicated, is when it appears that other
folk, who are not Members of Parliament, have got it before us.
That is something that would be well worth looking at.
Mr Gale: You have done this job
Q50 Chair: Sorry, Roger. Before
we move on, may I tease a little bit more out of you on that?
Hilary Benn: Sure.
Q51 Chair: Let's leave aside,
for the moment, Treasury-related statements, which can be market
sensitive. You know, because you've been a senior Minister, that
on a day when we sit at 2.30, a Minister has to notify the House
authorities by, I think, 12 o'clock whether he or she is going
to make an oral statement. Let's say that we had a system in place
for non market-sensitive statements whereby at 12 o'clock the
statement was released; it was available in the Vote Office and
released to the press in written form, and the Minister could
go on "The World at One" or any other lunch-time programme
and talk about his statement, but then at 3.30 present himself
to be questioned by Members. He would not read the statement out,
because we can all read it, and he would then be subject to scrutiny
by Members who were far better informed on the issue because of
the early notice of the statement and having had the ability to
reflect on it. What is your view of that procedure as a leading
member of Her Majesty's Opposition?
Hilary Benn: You would certainly
gain in terms of Members' ability to put questions that were pertinent,
well informed and researched in the time available. The disadvantage,
although not from the Opposition's point of view, relates to the
fact that one of the things that all of us have been seeking to
do is to make the House of Commons the place where people come
to hear what's going on. If all that debate has been played out
and the questions have been asked on "The World at One"
and the lunch-time news, there will be slightly less interest
by the time you get to half-past 3. What we're trying to grapple
with there is the balance between Parliament being the fulcrum
of national conversation and debate about what's going on, and
the relationship with the media. In the end, it seems to me, the
fundamental choice that the Committee has to make is how we are
going to balance those things, because it's hard to achieve both
I remember one occasion in particular, shortly
after Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, when he came to make
his statement on the constitution of Britain. That had not been
briefed. I remember sitting on the Government Benches and looking
at the expressions on the faces of Opposition Members as he said
things and people said, "Ooh, I hadn't heard that before."
We've become so used to everything that we hear when a statement
is made having been trailed beforehand that it was quite instructive
and it had a galvanising effect both on the questions and on those
up in the Gallery, but as we know, that has tended to be the exception
rather than the rule, hence this inquiry.
Q52 Mr Gale: You've covered most
of this. I agree entirely with the Chairman's view that whichever
route we recommended going down, we would want to exempt market-sensitive
Treasury statements. I would probably include in that certain
other things, like perhaps a statement on the London tube bombing,
which took place in the rush hour, when the security services
would need to brief and when the Prime Minister of the day would
need to brief the Leader of the Opposition of the day and probably
establish a huge degree of consensus, right up to the last minute
before a statement was made. In those circumstances, it would
be unreasonable to suggest that Members should have the thing
Let's come back to the written statements. You
heard Sir George suggest that the release should be brought forward
to 7. You heard me say, and it does seem to me, that that has
more to do with the media than the House of Commons. No Government
is in power for ever. How would you feel if there was a fixed
timea reasonable hour in mid-morningwhen all statements
were released? Members could then have the opportunity to raise
an urgent question, to go to the Speaker and say, "This written
statement was released mid-morning and there's stuff in it that
the House ought to be able to question the Minister on, so will
you ask the Minister to come to the House?" That would be
a fixed time, on a wholly cross-party agreed, regular basis, which
would allow the House, by and large, the opportunity to do its
job with Ministers first.
Hilary Benn: I sometimes think
in this debate that if the "Today" programme was on
at a slightly different time, like the midday programme, a lot
of these problems would disappear, to be perfectly honest. Short
of the House meetingI'm not suggesting this, I hasten to
point outjust before the "Today" programme goes
on air, this will always be a problem that we have to wrestle
It is quite difficult for Ministers if everybody
knows there's going to be an announcement on a given day on a
subject. You're invited on, and, of course, the Government of
the day want to argue their case, but saying, "I can talk
about this, but I can't talk about that because I must reveal
those details to the House of Commons first," can be difficult
in those circumstances. I'm not sure about 7 o'clock, but I think
that we should find a way of ensuring that those things get published
at a time when Members have a reasonable opportunity to be made
aware of them at the moment they are published and they have a
chance to look at them.
In this new Parliament, the extent to which
the Speaker has chosen to grant urgent questions has been striking.
It goes to the heart of the points that you were raising with
Sir George about sanctions. I can't remember whether I was ever
the subject of an urgent question, but, believe you me, as a Minister
you take all things in Parliament very seriously, but you take
an urgent question very, very seriously indeed. You think, "Right,
we've got to get ourselves organised here." I think it's
a very effective sanction and there is no doubt in my mind that
the increasing tendency to grant UQs has put more of the focus
back on Parliament, which is what all of us want.
Q53 Mr Nuttall: What is your view
on the idea put forward about having a time limit on statements?
Assuming for the moment that we carry on with the oral statements,
as has been the custom, should there be a limit? What's your view
on the limit to the overall time and perhaps to the length of
frontbench statements, which can often eat in to the overall time
by 15 minutes or so?
Hilary Benn: If we want to provide
more opportunities, that is one of the ways in which we can do
it. I know that time limits are a matter of debate and controversy,
but then, we have applied them to speeches to give more people
an opportunity to get in. As I indicated earlier, I think it really
is a question of judgment. If you had a half-hour or 45-minute
slot and were trying to shoehorn into that, in a rigid way, the
kind of example that Mr Gale gave of a major terrorist outragethat
would be an occasion when the all the eyes of the nation would
be on the House, rightly so, and the House should have a full
opportunity to get information. In those circumstances, the Home
Secretary coming to the House to report on what was happening
could speak for 20 or 25 minutes to give us the facts. We should
not create an over-rigid system. It comes back to the point about
judgment. What is the subject? How much interest is there in it?
How do you give it the appropriate amount of time?
Q54 Chair: I think the Committee
recognises all you are saying about the downside of having an
arbitrary time limit on a statement, but what is your view on
the other way of dealing with itto have discretionary injury
time, which could be given at the discretion of the Speaker after
a certain period had elapsed? If it was clear that the mood of
the House had taken everyone by surprise and the statement went
on for an hour, the Speaker would thenfor example, once
45 minutes had elapsedhave the power to reinstate all or
part of that hour at the end of the business. What is your view?
Hilary Benn: I think on that that
I have would have a different view on days that ended at 7 o'clock.
Let's talk about the parliamentary week. If there's a lot of
injury time on a day when there will be votes at 10 o'clock, then
there are questions about when we end and Members getting home
and so on and so forth; and, obviously, on a Thursday, a lot of
Members return to their constituencies, which is why we end at
6 o'clock. Having made that point, yes, that option could be looked
at to ensure that we don't create pressures on Ministers. Sometimes,
as a Minister, you wanted to make an oral statement but those
managing the business of the House said, "Well, it is an
Opposition day, and we've been criticised for eating into time,"
or, "There's another statement on this," and you found
that you couldn't.
That is another argument for making it possible
in those circumstances to table a written statement, perhaps not
having to wait for the next day, because you might say, "If
I cannot make an oral statement, I shall table a written statement
once I know the decision that I cannot make an oral statement."
That's another change that could be considered to make it easier
for information to be given contemporaneously to the House, without
having to wait for the next day.
I very much take the point that Sir George raised
about the Thursday to Tuesday problem. We ought to do something
about that, because we have our sitting times and hours, but stuff
happensevents occurand we want Parliament to be
up to date, which is why urgent questions on oral questions, for
example, is a sensible change to make.
Chair: Do you want to add anything on
Q55 Mrs Chapman: Sir George was
keen to press that he thought the House now put a premiumI
believe that was how he described iton finishing at a certain
time and certainty about hours. Do you share that view, or do
you take a slightly softer line and are more flexible in your
thinking about that?
Hilary Benn: Personally, to put
my cards on the table, I was in favour of sticking with the 7.30
finish on a Tuesday. On Monday, people are travelling down from
their constituencies. However, we need to think about the lateness
of the hour at which the House finishes, so that is a consideration
for Monday in relation to the injury time proposal, and, in relation
to Thursday, Members being able to get back. It depends on how
long the business will be extended. Otherwise, if you have a 7
o'clock finish on a Tuesday and a Wednesday, I do not think that
a bit of injury time, of itself, would be an enormous problem,
if the issue had been of great significance.
The other way of looking at it is that, depending
on the remaining business, the Speaker might take a view, looking
at the number of people who have applied to speak in the debate,
and say, "Well, actually, we might be stretching it out,
and therefore injury time may not be required." You have
to look at the totality of the rest of the day to decide how we
will fit everything in. I think the Speaker is in a very good
position to do that on our behalf.
Q56 Sir Peter Soulsby: One of
the other reasons that Sir George gave in his argument about the
lack of notice for a 7 am statement was that when the Government
have to give notice the night before, there is a disincentive
to do that if there is any risk that the statement might not ultimately
be given. How credible did you find that? Obviously, you have
Hilary Benn: For most things,
you have a pretty clear idea that you want to make a statement,
whether oral or written, because it will be the culmination of
policy that has been prepared, developed and discussed in Government,
and cleared over quite a long period of time. However, there will
be occasions when you need to do something quite quickly. I think
it is fair to say that the 7 o'clock proposal is really about
being able to go on the media before 9.30 in the morningthat
is how I would interpret it. In the main, the Government ought
to be able to give notice to Members and Opposition spokespeople,
and as a Minister I always thought that it was very important
that we did so.
Chair: Can we move to a possible House
of Commons protocol and sanctions?
Q57 Jacob Rees-Mogg: This is really
the same question that I asked Sir George, but, particularly as
you are now on the other side of the fencegamekeeper turned
poacher, whichever way you want to put itdo you think to
some extent it is simply the natural course of events that Governments
will be accused of leaking and Oppositions will get very cross,
and then when the Opposition are in government, the reverse will
happen; and that, therefore, trying to be too strict about it
simply will not work?
Hilary Benn: There are leaks
and leaks. There are occasions when things come out of your Department
as a Minister that you didn't want to come out, and you certainly
didn't play any part in it. How do you deal with a Minister in
such circumstances? He or she will say, "It genuinely had
nothing at all to do with me, mate."
The urgent question is the first and most important
sanction, because it makes Ministers sit up, and it makes the
point that the Speaker thinks, on behalf of the House, that the
judgment you made, if you had given a written statement when it
really should have been oral, was not the right one. It comes
back to the point about "most important." How do you
make that judgment?
Secondly, I really do think that the House ought
to have its own protocol in relation to this. For the reasons
I set out earlier, I think it is really odd. Of course, the Government
should say to Ministers, "You ought to take the House of
Commons very seriously," but I think the House of Commons
ought to say to Ministers, "You should take us seriouslyand,
by the way, this is what we expect." Another approach could
be that if a UQ wasn't granted, the Speaker might write to a Minister
and oblige him or her to give a written explanation of what on
earth has been going on in those circumstances.
Those are the two ideas I would offer. The difficulty
with taking it further is who, in the end, is going to resolve
the question of the "most important" or whatever words
the House decides to use for any protocol that it draws up? That
very much depends on your point of view.
Q58 Jacob Rees-Mogg: So in a way
the starting point is what statements ought to be made and when
are they important enough to come to the Chamber? That may tie
in with Westminster Hall and the things we discussed earlier.
If they are not important enough for the Chamber are they, in
fact, important enough for oral statements? The question is: how
would the House write a protocol that a Government would allow
to pass through the House? It's a case of who would bell the cat,
isn't it? The Government like a system whereby it is essentially
a matter of ministerial and prime ministerial discretion because
then, if something goes wrong, they can get away with it, or
do you think that is unfair?
Hilary Benn: It's going to be
very hard to have a system under which the House gets into conversations
in Departments about possible announcements and statements and
says, "Well, my view is that this is a most important one
and you ought to do this." Ultimately you have to leave it
to the Government to make those decisions. The protocol is about
how the House expresses its view when it thinks that Ministers
have got it wrongfor example, when they have announced
something and they haven't had the courtesy to tell anyone about
it at all.
A recent example is the defence treaties signed
with the French Government. There are also past examples, so I
am not making a party point at all. Looking at that example, it
struck me that it was pretty darned important, frankly, and that
the House ought know what's going on and ought to get to see the
documents. I checked in the Library as soon as that statement
was over and the documents had appeared, but if it hadn't been
for the fuss and the fact that there was an urgent question, I
am not sure that that would have been the case. The House ultimately
will be the judge of whether Ministers have got it right. The
question is, what is the appropriate way of expressing that? The
UQ and the other suggestion I have made are the two ideas I came
up with when I was reflecting on this. The Committee will no doubt
have other views of its own.
Q59 Jacob Rees-Mogg: How does
this affect the position of the Speaker? If he is seen always
to be the one who is bashing the Government for failing to do
things, does that begin to politicise his position?
Hilary Benn: In the case of a
UQ, obviously the Speaker is responding to a question that a Member
has put in, so he is acting as the vehicle for giving expression
to the view of one Member and he will make a judgmentin
the end it is a judgment. In the case of my second suggestion,
well, that could be the Speaker acting on a complaint, representation
or whatever. I take your point: one wants to protect the Speaker
from any appearance that he is acting in a partisan way. He is
responding to the Housethe will of the House.
Q60 Chair: I think that's the
point. If we have a House protocol, the Speaker would be the natural
person to enforce it. But the protocol is a protocol of the House.
Hilary Benn: That's exactly it.
Q61 Chair: Can I put to you something
suggested to us that has not convinced us, just to see what your
view is? One suggestion was made to us that where a Minister comprehensively
leaks information that is to be contained in an oral statement,
the Speaker should have the power to refuse to allow the Minister
to make that statement. We are not entirely convinced that that
is the way to deal with it. I would welcome your comments.
Hilary Benn: Well, it depends
whether you gave the Minister notice that you were going to do
that. If you had been working away and you turned up and the Speaker
said, "Order, order. Since I've read about all of this in
The Times this morning, I think we've all heard about it.
Thanks very much. We're going to move on to the next business,"
it would have a certain salutary effect. The only trouble is that
the conclusion that Ministers might draw is, "Well, in that
case, I don't have to think so much about statements because I
can just carry on doing what I've been doing." But the first
time it happened, it would certainly lead to a lot of raised eyebrows,
would it not?
Chair: I think so.
Q62 Mr Nuttall: May I come in
there, Chairman? The only drawback is that backbenchers would
not have the opportunity to question the Minister.
Hilary Benn: I think that considering
the momentary satisfaction compared with a loss of opportunity
for the House to question the Minister, in the end, the opportunity
to question the Minister is really important.
Q63 Chair: Is there anything you
want to add?
Hilary Benn: No. I think I've
covered all the ground I wanted to. I hope it has been helpful.
Chair: Thank you for your time. We have
a very difficult task ahead of us, as you can probably see, but
you and Sir George have made it less difficult. For that, we are
Hilary Benn: Very kindthank